Harry amidst the Vaults of Stone
Chapter 26 (~~~Intermission~~~)
At which point, something stepped out of the undergrowth and onto the trail ahead of them.
Harry lowered his longknife – and how stupid had it been to drop his staff in favour of the blade? – and stepped forward. The twins hadn't got as far as drawing their wands; they were staring.
The centaur who had appeared before them narrowed her eyes.
She was jet-black, dappled with grey, and held a pair of spears crooked in one muscular arm. Although clearly thrown like javelins by the centaur, Harry would have a hard time even lifting them both at once.
Harry gently shunted the twins aside and spoke his introduction in North Seelie. The sorcerers who had taught it to him had made it clear that this was not a language for common conversation. It was an old language, old as flint arrowheads and green ice; the air seemed crisper as he spoke.
"I whö am Harry greet yöu in the names ö∫ Gringötts and Under∫ööt, and beg grace tö wander in the ∫örest."
"I know who you are, Potter child." The voice was deep and commanding. The words were spoken in common English, which, in context, was an insult.
Then the centaur grudgingly added, "I whö am Salquess bid yöu welcöme to Fantaörne Förest, called the Wööd ö∫ Gillit'ie by the glass-eyed ∫ölk, ör in the töngue ö∫ greetings, Tulamh Nuh Gauithe Agös Scáuth, The Place ö∫ Wind and Shade. A star scrutinises the minute of our meeting."
She rolled her head upwards and snorted. "A small, unfortunate star. What are you three doing in the forest, dressed in the leaves' seeming? And in the throes of times such as these, when Dementors' breath and worse miasmas separate these auld eaves from wizards' paddocks? You ought know better, Potter of goblins, even if these twae know aught."
The centaur shifted in agitation, thumping the ground with the base of a spear.
There was clearly a problem, and Harry was beginning to realise it was this: Salquess was female. Definitely female. Centaurs weren't generally in favour of clothing. And while Harry wasn't quite at an age where it mattered, he knew enough to realise that the twins were. Their eyes were ...fixated.
One of them whispered, "Blimey."
Centaur women were built to a larger scale than the males. They had to be, because childbirth was difficult for such creatures. The size difference was never so apparent as right now.
A little nervous, Harry bought some time by recovering his staff from the leaf-litter.
"Your clan is too far north for us to have known frequent contact," he said. "But I heard much of Boskfly, your Mistress Patterner, from my tutor in sorcery. She is known throughout the lands, and I would love to meet her."
Salquess' brows furrowed. "Her Immanence has passed into the stars, almost two years now."
"...Oh. Ah, and so has Bollotz," Harry said sadly.
"Your timing is singularly inauspicious, then. Our new Master Patterner is Windslough," the dark centaur added. "In truth, since the time of splintering none but our wrights and patterners have dealt with the goblinkin, although we well recall how by them many a gloaming golden hoard was shaped and wrought."
Salquess looked wistful. "The clan made trade for silver necklaces strung with flowering stars... crowns hung with dragon-fire. The skies tell dark fables of late, and perhaps if we would speak again to those who in twisted wire can mesh the light of moon and sun, they might shine some unexpected light for us."
Harry blinked at this, hoping he was understanding correctly. "It is time to forge new bonds, then?"
The lady of the wood thrust her spears tip-first into the ground, and folded her arms. "Perhaps. I think 'twould be best for all if you left, awaited better portents... and then returned alone," the centaur said pointedly. "Do you twae willow-malkins care to disagree?"
The twins shook their heads mutely.
"Then all..." Salquess broke off and stared upwards suddenly. Only the faintest cracks of rain-sodden grey were visible, but whatever she had sensed, it made her nostrils flare in alarm.
"By the pricking of my hooves! Something mighty this way moves!"
Scant seconds later, the wind began to ruffle the branches overhead; branches which had before been so still they might have been carved from stone.
The centaur was already waving her arms for the three students to run when a flash of amber lit the trees nearby, as if something had appeared in a ball of intense flame.
And a voice boomed, "Harry Potter!"
They ran, Salquess herding them before her as her own legs ate up the ground at an easy lope. With every movement, Harry felt the dead weight of his staff tenderising his shoulder.
"Hoof it, younglings!"
Harry's concentration was split between the forest trail and worrying at the nature of the sudden interruption. He was aware of a small dissonance: at the sound of the voice, Salquess had seemed to relax minutely before urging the three back along the path.
Minutes later, his legs were burning and he could hear the twins gasping for enough air to sustain their thickset bodies. But the trees were becoming more widely-spaced and less enshrouded in lichen, and eventually they broke through to the Autumnal sunlight at the edge of the forest.
Harry set his feet on the school's turf, and leaned heavily on a tree. Fred and George collapsed in a drift of leaves.
The centaur shifted skittishly in the undergrowth, then locked her gaze suddenly upon him. "Seek us öut at threshöld öf winter sölstice," she said in North Seelie, the words rolling like tussled tundra tussocks. "Be∫öre the dawn. 'tis a time ∫ated ∫ör sa∫ety and events ö∫ minör impört."
Harry gave a short bow. "I shall. Cönvey my regards tö yöur clan chie∫ and yöur Master Patterner." He hesitated. "Understand that I dö nöt speak with, ah, the ∫ull weight ö∫ the Brötherhööd..."
Salquess nodded abruptly. "Yes. Yet, there are wörds yöu shöuld hear, and likely möre tidings by then."
She turned a dark eye on Fred and George, who were looking a little overwhelmed. "And let me not see you two again, or I shall bid each tree unfix his earth-bound root and hasten your departure."
The centaur turned abruptly and pushed back through the bushes, her dark silhouette instantly lost in the dappled depths of the forest. But already somebody else was rounding the corner of the dark eaves, walking briskly but not hurrying.
"Morning, sir!" said one of the interchangeable Weasleys, quickly scrambling up from the ground. His twin was still wheezing with exertion. "Er... having a pleasant stroll, then?"
Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore ambulated to a halt and looked the three of them up and down. Harry became very aware of the mud on the trio's boots and the twigs in their hair.
"No, I cannot say that I am, Mister Weasley," the wizened figure said quietly. "It is altogether too early and too dreary a day. Where, may I ask, have the three of you been?"
A look passed between the brothers, who were both standing to attention now. One spoke, brightly. "Oh, we were just-"
Harry realised whose voice had called out earlier, and quickly interrupted. "In truth, we were in the forest, Professor." He ignored the thumping of his heart in his chest and met the Headmaster's eyes evenly.
There was a long pause before the wizard spoke. "Ah, the truth. A tempestuous beast, which we must often kept penned for safety's sake. But it is always refreshing to see it let out for a little exercise."
Dumbledore's face looked a little older and more worn, then. "I would hope, Mister Weasley and Mister Weasley, that you do not wish me to extrapolate from your behaviour this week to the year to come. I am quite disappointed that any of you would do something so foolhardy."
The whitebeard continued as the twins looked up and down and scuffed their feet. "The forest is perilous enough any day. But with Black and Lestrange, and the dementors that hound them..."
He looked away for a moment, staring at the dark forest. "Still, we are none of us as wise as we should be."
Harry squirmed for a few moments as the old wizard's gaze returned to scrutinise him. "I do feel for Mister Filch. His hours are perforce kept terribly late when he is required to oversee detentions on top of his normal duties. No... no, I think we shall not bother him so early in the year. However, there is a certain task which our groundskeeper and myself must perform every so often. It will go a little faster with some help. I will meet the three of you on Tuesday in the Entrance Hall at eight o'clock in the evening."
He looked at each of them in turn over the rims of his spectacles. "Take heed, now. I must warn you in the strongest terms against wandering off again."
There was a solemn pause, and then the weathered face broke into a bright smile. "But this does not mean that you should forget Hogwarts lesson number one: never not be having fun!"
And with that, Dumbledore was gone.
"I apologise," Harry said as the twins brushed each other off.
Possibly-George shrugged. "Mate, we couldn't have hoped to outfox Dumbledore." He glanced at probably-Fred. "Blimey, not even mom's that good at making you feel guilty."
A thought seemed to strike him and his brother both, identical worried expressions flashing across their faces.
One said, "Hope he doesn't write her. She'd pitch a fit if she knew!"
The other, "We won't be bothered by Filch, though, apparently. Wonder what that's about?"
Harry shrugged. "What is this 'detention', anyway? We get ...detained somewhere?"
The twins simultaneously cocked their heads to the side.
One laughed, "I'm sure you'll learn about it soon enough!"
The other, "But detention with Dumbledore, huh. Wonder what that's going to be like. You probably shouldn't let it form your first impression of detention, Harry."
"Just wait till you get one with Snape," Fred shuddered.
Harry, acutely aware of his duty to complete the transaction, dug around in his pockets until he found a piece of paper. He passed it to George, who read aloud: "Olm Decorating, Axolotl Bottling and Caecilian Party Favours: Variations on an Amphibian Theme. Melissa J. Fauxworthy. Charms section. Pages 233-240. Oh! Thanks, Harry."
"Oh, you can have this too, if you want," Harry offered, taking out his rather crispy Exploding Snap deck. "Getting the three of us detained wasn't in the deal. And, frankly, I'm tired of people playing with it next to my Transfiguration homework. I hate to think what could happen if Kevin got his hands on it."
Fred examined the cards with a discerning eye. "Hmmm. Well now Harry, if you really don't want it, we'll reluctantly take it off your hands. Don't think you need to make amends for anything, though – I've no idea how the Headmaster found us so quickly."
"Perhaps due to the increased security after the Black and Lestrange escapes," Harry suggested, reflexively glancing around him.
There was a brief flurry of eyebrow signals between the twins, and then "Nope," said George as Fred stowed the pack of cards away. "We've ...technically... been off grounds already this week. I can't see Dumbledore being able to detect people who leave the grounds to go into the Forest, but not people who-"
His twin elbowed him in the ribs, and the boy clammed up.
Realising he wasn't going to get much more out of them, Harry shrugged and began to walk up the sloping lawn towards the track that led past the greenhouses and on to the castle. "Well, if we were going to get caught anyway, I'm just glad we ran into Salquess first. Yes? You know, centaurs aren't all dööm and glööm and lööm with hööves, even if it seems that way."
"She wasn't happy to see us," said George. "Still... brill. Absolutely no regrets there."
His brother said nothing, looking thoughtful. Both boys, Harry observed, were blushing faintly. The pink bloom spread across their cheeks in different patterns, making them easier to distinguish.
As the twins headed off, Harry trailed after them more slowly, thinking.
Dumbledore had known, somehow, that – and where – he had gone. The twins had been in the forest before, apparently without incident. They had also been out of school grounds this very week.
So Dumbledore had either placed a tracking spell on Harry alone – or maybe it was possible that the school had wards which could trace Harry alone, that would have the same effect if it were possible – or Dumbledore was mysteriously able to know where everyone was, but only cared where Harry went. The first hypothesis was simpler, and therefore more likely.
Which meant ...what? This was good to know, but was it useful? Should Harry challenge the Headmaster on it? He felt rather indignant at having his movements tracked, but that didn't mean he couldn't see the sense in it, all things considered. Maybe he should talk to Brother Filius? He should at least write home.
Harry wished his brain would work faster and, well, better. Surely, with all of magic and science and goblin cunning, there was a way to improve that.
As his mind went off on a tangent, his feet led him into the Entrance Hall, and up a flight of steps to the first floor.
The first wide landing was made of stone polished by centuries of feet ringing out on it just as Harry's were. As he headed towards the next flight, he kept a wary eye on Draco Malfoy, who stood beside a tapestry, talking to a hulking older boy with a Slytherin tie. The latter was built like a pallet of bricks and had long hair. Some part of Harry's brain wondered if he'd been wrong in his assumption that the tendency for goblin hairstyles to be divided by gender lines extended to wizards as well.
Malfoy caught sight of him, blinked, and made some comment to the older boy, who took a few menacing steps forward.
Harry halted, right next to the second flight of stairs, and leaned on his staff.
"How opportune," Malfoy sneered. "Coppice and I were just discussing a wager about whether it would take one month or two for Lestrange to track you down and kill you."
The blonde boy stepped forward, into the shadows of the silently looming 'Coppice'. "You know, I saw you from the window earlier, Potter. Hanging about with Weasleys, really? Do your own classmates hate you so much that you have to sink to that level of friends?"
"You seem to be doing quite well with your own classmates," Harry retorted, gesturing to the older boy. "Did your father pay him to hang around with you?"
The senior's wand came up at this, but Malfoy was already walking forward, looking like he was fighting to keep a particularly ugly look off his face.
"My real, living, actual wizard father doesn't have to pay people off for me, Potter! Nice staff, by the way. Can't afford a proper wand? Let's have a look."
Malfoy's delicate hands stretched out towards the length of white oak, which Harry swung up from the floor, sinking the butt into Malfoy's gut. He folded up with a quiet 'oomph', and sank to the ground.
The long-haired Coppice fired a dark blue spell that cut through the air with a noise like paper tearing, and Harry batted at it with his staff. The senior, seeing the swing intercept the indigo ray, dropped to the floor, but the spell was only disrupted, not returned at him. As he glanced down at the Slytherin – what was Terry's word? Oh yes, 'pillock' – gaping at him from the floor, Harry made a mental note to learn how to repel spells properly.
It was probably best to leave before the older boy tried something nasty. Harry took several steps up the broad staircase, moving at a diagonal so that he could watch for movement from Coppice.
"Locomotor Wibbly! Don't you dare ignore me, Potter!" Malfoy's voice, shrill with anger. Obviously Harry hadn't hit him hard enough.
There was a moment, as Harry's legs collapsed underneath him, where everything started moving slowly. Seen that before, he thought. Adrenal flood, because I know I'm being attacked and I know my arm's not going to come up in time before I hit the stones, yes? Ye-
There was blackness.
There was something scuttling around his temple. Cave roach?
He reached up to seize it, but couldn't move.
Wand wood, he identified after a while. Perhaps healing charms. Hospital wing?
Then the pain hit him. And as he tried to clutch at it, a voice said: "You're awake? Good. That was quite a crack to the head you took, Mr Potter."
"Naturally... grtizerku... thick-headed," he managed, cracking an eye open.
"How lucky for you," Madam Pomfrey said briskly. Her wand changed pattern, and the pain ebbed. "How are you feeling now? No stabbing pains or difficulty breathing?"
"Legs... still feel weak," Harry noted.
"Ah, so it was the Jelly-legs Jinx. I thought it might have been."
Yes - that made sense. The jinx was used as an exemplar for the second half of their defence textbook. Funny, Harry hadn't thought Malfoy the type to read ahead, or to be in any other way productive.
"Quite a weak one, so I wasn't sure whether it was just lingering spell residue," the matron continued, "and I didn't want to risk complications from applying the wrong countercurse. Unjellyfy," she intoned, causing a prickly sensation. "Please follow my finger with your eyes, Mr Potter."
He did so, as she waved it around. His brain was beginning to untreaclefy as he woke completely.
"Good. What is your full name, please?"
"Harry James. Potter. Uhh.. my staff?" he asked weakly.
Madam Pomfrey pursed her lips. "It is in Professor Flitwick's possession, and I'm far from certain it should be returned to you, Mr Potter. You'll need to see him to explain what happened anyway. Mr Barne said there was nobody around when he found you, but clearly you didn't just trip."
Harry ignored the obvious nonsense of the first half of this speech, nodded at the second, and asked, "What time is it?"
The matron gestured to the windows. "Almost noon. If you were out much longer, I would have become worried."
Oh yes, natural light. You could tell the time by that. Remarkable.
There was the sound of distant coughing, and the matron cautioned him to stay in bed before bustling away in that direction.
"Mm... thanks," Harry said to her retreating form. He found he had control of his arms, and checked himself carefully. There was a dull pain in his ribs – either he'd hit a few stairs the wrong way, or Malfoy had kicked him while he was out. He grinned, remembering how Bludfrang liked to do that when they clattered staves.
His fingers were itching for something to do, but he knew better than to risk a healer's wrath in her own domain. He spent a while trying to identify Coppice's blue spell – just a jinx, he thought, but he couldn't remember if it was the Tooth Loss one or the Toenail Curling one – before amusing himself by flicking through the notebooks in his belt pouch. There was still so much he had to do.
Later, the doors quietly opened and most of his friends trickled in. Padma had brought him some food in a napkin from lunch. So had Kevin, although his efforts had extended only to treacle tart, and by the time they had got themselves sorted out, there was more left making a papery mess on his fingers than Harry received.
"To be seen in the company of one Weasley may be regarded as misfortune," Blaise informed him primly, perching on a stool at the side of the bed. "To be seen in the company of two seems like carelessness."
"Is it not customary to ask how I am?"
"I can see that you'll be fine," Blaise said callously. "Madam Pomfrey wouldn't let us in to view a corpse."
"Blaise Zabini!" Hermione looked like she was going to hit him for a moment. Instead she turned back to Harry, and asked what had happened to him. He asked a question in response: What would happen if he reported someone?
"Detention, probably," Terry said. "Loss of House Points. Do you mean you were pushed?"
"No," Harry said, truthfully, idly deciding on a course of revenge.
Yes, that would be suitable. "You're rooming with Draco Malfoy, right, Theodore?"
The mousy boy glanced up, surprised. "Yeah... but I won't be soon, with any luck. Everyone in first year Slytherin's paired up but Blaise, so I've asked Snape if I can transfer to his room. Exchanging one insufferable prick for another. Why?"
Blaise rolled his eyes. "Maybe they'll save space and put Malfoy in with his goons. They probably snore."
Harry checked the Matron was elsewhere, then outlined to Theodore what he wanted and (roughly) what he needed it for. The boy nodded hesitantly, although he didn't look happy.
The others were giving him what Harry now recognised as 'incredulous' looks. Goblins would be showing considerably more teeth, and there would be nowhere near as much eyebrow business going on.
"Did you come up with all that within minutes of waking up? How come you're not in Slytherin?" Blaise asked. "Well, apart from the risk of having to room with someone other than me, of course."
Harry shrugged. "It's really just a variation of a normal goblin thing. I grew up all but instructed in the ways of canny and revenge, yes? I'm surprised that you're surprised – the elders always despaired at how uncunning I was."
"We'll watch the mail for a few days," Padma said, rubbing her ear distractedly. "And I can ask an older student to teach us the copying charm."
"If it's too difficult, the Weasleys should be able to," Harry said. "And we'll need them later, anyway."
Hermione, who had only been spluttering up until now, began to object strenuously. "Is this– did Draco Malfoy push you over on the stairs? You've got to tell a professor, Harry, you can't just exact some kind of, of retribution on him! That's against so many rules! You have to leave it to the teachers to sort it out!"
Before Harry could respond, Blaise was scowling at her. "I can't believe it! You're oppressing Harry's goblin-born right to deal with his affairs in the way appropriate to his culture! How insensitive can you be, Granger?" The effect was ruined when he turned to discretely wink at Harry.
"Are you accusing me of ethnocentrism? I just-" Hermione threw her hands in the air and stormed out of the hospital wing. "Unbelievable. Completely unbelievable..."
"It's a wonder she's still got friends," Terry muttered, earning an elbow jab from Padma. "She'd better not snitch. This is going to be way too good."
"I'd better head off too," Theodore said. "I have matters to attend to, apparently."
Padma, watching him go, shook her head. "He's going to be in an awkward place, when his father hears he's aligned himself away from Malfoy."
"How so?" Harry asked, struggling to sit upright in the hospital bed.
Blaise interrupted. "It doesn't matter. He has to find his own way. Did you know, we had to talk to your Head of House to find out you'd been hurt? It's odd that we didn't hear Draco bragging about knocking you out - he was kind of quiet at lunch. Maybe he thinks he can still get on your good side?"
Padma snorted. "Like Harry might have got amnesia and forgot who was responsible?"
"Well, he is Malfoy. He probably genuinely believes that the world re-sculpts itself to suit his demands..."
The rest of them left, still bickering.
→ Mad props to Gunnerkrigg Court Tolkien A Very Potter Musical Homestuck Macbeth Potter Puppet Pals Wilde and Earthsea yo.
→ Recently I find myself making the same expressions as those of the characters I write. This may be related to my continued successes in getting a seat to myself on the bus.